Portrait of the Sufi princess Noor Inayat Khan

The call of the one to the many

Idealistic, cosmopolitan and full of heroic courage. It is almost 75 years since the death of Sufi princess Noor Inayat Khan, who served as a secret agent in France during the Second World War and was ultimately murdered by the Nazis in Dachau concentration camp. A portrait by Eric Schumacher

The website "Rejected Princesses" lists the names of princesses who, in a just world, would have been featured in a Walt Disney film. Top of the list is Noor Inayat Khan, the ravishingly beautiful Sufi princess, musician, celebrated author and resistance fighter against the Nazi regime. Yet, who was this woman, remembered in Germany by little more than a memorial plaque in  Dachau concentration camp crematorium?

Noor-un-Nisa Inayat Khan was born in Moscow on New Year's day in 1914. She was the oldest daughter of the American Ora Ray Baker and the renowned Sufi teacher and musician Hazrat Inayat Khan, who at the time held a post at the Moscow Conservatory. She was also the great-great granddaughter of Tipu Sultan, ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore, who fought three wars against the colonising British forces.

With the start of the First World War, the family was forced to flee to London, where Noor's three siblings, Vilayat, Hidayat and Khair-un-Nisa were born. Six years later, they settled in the Paris suburb of Suresnes. What followed was an idyllic family life, full of spirituality, religious studies and frequent international guests. After the death of her father in 1927, Noor assumed responsibility for her siblings and the "Fazal Mansil" or "House of Blessing" remained their secure home.

For the peaceful unity of all beings

"Spy princess: The life of Noor Inayat Khan" by Shrabani Basu (published by Sutton)

In Paris, she studied harp and piano under, among others, the famous composition teacher Nadia Boulanger. She also studied child psychology at the Sorbonne and wrote a column for the children's section of Le Figaro. In 1939, she published a book entitled "Twenty Jataka Tales", a collection of parables on previous incarnations of the Buddha Siddhartha Gautama.

Even here, one can see the outlines of her doctrine that an individual should be prepared to resolutely champion the peaceful unity of all beings, even at the cost of one's own life. Accordingly, she studiously researched all the prophetic traditions and religious cultures with the aim of uncovering a common core and overcoming obstacles to interfaith contact.

In 1940, the family was forced to flee to London to escape from the Nazi regime. Upon hearing reports on the inhumane conditions in concentration camps, Noor and her siblings quickly decided to support the war effort. Noor became a highly specialised wireless operator with the Special Operations Executive (SOE), a special unit of the British intelligence service. Her brother Vilayat joined the Royal Navy.

Throughout this entire period, Noor continued to write stories. Her capacity for dedication and her artistic power seem to have been inexhaustible. She delved deeply into European literary history, occupying herself with the Chansons de Geste and Reinecke Fuchs. Yet, she also focused on non-European stories such as Scheherazade, the wise King Akbar and the Indian musician Mira Bai. These were followed by Japanese, Russian and Polish legends, as well as stories from both Nordic and Greek mythology. She dedicated three stories to Christianity and, in particular, to the Christmas festivities she loved so much.

An affinity for heroes

In all of her stories, Noor displays an affinity for heroes who overreach themselves and stumble accordingly. She liked to tell tales of moral misconduct while simultaneously inspiring courage. She focused on the theme of cultivating the soul in order to achieve a state of conscientious awareness, a never-ending process, marked by repeated mistakes and setbacks, which can only be endured with a generous portion of humour.

In June 1943, the SOE flew Noor to Paris, where she provided backup for the resistance, eventually serving as the last wireless connection between the French Resistance and the Allies. Although a pacifist, she allowed herself to be trained in the use of weapons, only to discard her pistol before leaving England.

Noor's brother Vilayat wrote in his memoirs: "Sometimes I ask myself whether those who live today in prosperity, or at least enjoy the highly cherished political freedom of our modern societies, realise that they owe a debt of gratitude to those people who were tortured and died for them."

Tortured, sexually abused and murdered

According to legend, Noor's beauty proved her downfall. She was betrayed by the sister of an agent, captured by the Gestapo and, after two attempts at escape, was sent to a prison in Pforzheim. There she was tortured, suffered terrible starvation and was probably also sexually abused, before finally being transferred to the Dachau concentration camp.

On 13 September 1944, Noor Inayat Khan and three other female colleagues from the SOE were taken by SS officers and lined up in front of a wall near the crematorium at Dachau concentration camp. Eduard Weiter, the camp commander and two other SS officers were already waiting for them there. The women were ordered to kneel on the ground and to hold hands. One after another, they were shot in the back of the head at point blank range. According to Shribanu Basu in her impressive biography of Noor, the "Spy Princess", her last word was "Liberte".

Noor Inayat Khan was honoured posthumously in England and France with the George Cross and the Croix de Guerre. In London's Gordon Square Gardens, where she would often sit to read and write, the first and only monument in Britain to an Asian woman was erected and unveiled by Anne, the Princess Royal. The Oscar prize-winning actress Helen Mirren provided Noor with her voice in a documentary film on her life's work. Muslims and non-Muslims from all over the world honour her as an embodiment of spiritual chivalry. And who knows, perhaps there will one day be a monument to her in Germany as well – or maybe Disney will create a princess in her image.

The persecution and mass murder of European Jews left Noor Inayat Khan shaken to her core. As to why God would permit so much horror and evil in the world, she provided an answer in her stories with the greatest gift endowed to her by the Creator: namely, we all have the freedom to choose good. In her own words, it is "the call of the one to the many."

Her writings and her non-violent resistance to the Nazis are a direct reflection of her active dedication to interreligious Sufism.

Eric Schumacher

© Qantara.de 2016

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

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